Mayor ends Seattle police drone efforts

SEATTLE — Seattle’s mayor on Thursday ordered the police department to abandon its plan to use drones after residents and privacy advocates protested.

Mayor Mike McGinn said the department will not use two small drones it obtained through a federal grant. The unmanned aerial vehicles will be returned to the vendor, he said.

“Today I spoke with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority,” the mayor said in a brief statement.

The decision comes as the debate over drones heats up across the country. Lawmakers in at least 11 states are looking at plans to restrict the use of drones over their skies amid concerns the vehicles could be exploited to spy on Americans.

The Seattle Police Department previously said it would use drones to provide an overhead view of large crime scenes, serious accidents, disasters, and search and rescue operations. It had conducted demonstrations of the drones to show the public their capabilities.

The program drew strong criticism from residents Wednesday at a meeting of the City Council, which was considering an ordinance giving police the authority to use drones.

The proposed measure would have allowed the use of drones for data collection but barred police from using them over “open-air assembly of people” or for general surveillance. The drones would have carried no weapons, but the proposal would have allowed police to use face-recognition software in them.

The police department had purchased two Draganflyer X6 vehicles, which have a width of 36 inches, length of 33.5 inches and stand just under a foot. The drones are capable of flying indoors and outdoors and carry a camera, according to the company website.

The department had not yet begun using the drones but received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

One of the program’s key adversaries was the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued the drones were obtained without any public input or discussion.

“We applaud the mayor’s action,” spokesman Doug Honig said Thursday. “Drones would have given the police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on the privacy of people in Seattle … and there was a never a strong case made that Seattle needed them for public safety.”

Moving forward, the ACLU would like to see the Legislature adopt “very tight restrictions” on law-enforcement drones statewide, Honig said.

Opposition to the use of drones in the U.S. has come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, including civil liberties advocates and those worried over government intrusion.

On Monday, the Charlottesville City Council in Virginia passed a resolution imposing a two-year moratorium on the use of drones within city limits. The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group behind the city’s effort, said Charlottesville is the first city in the country to limit the use of drones by police.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security drones do enter Washington airspace occasionally, patrolling the Canadian border east of the Cascade mountains. The two 10,000-pound Predator-B unmanned aircraft are based in North Dakota.

Meanwhile, CIA Director-designate John Brennan strongly defended anti-terror attacks by unmanned drones abroad Thursday under questioning at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Brennan said drone strikes are used only against targets planning to carry out attacks against the United States, never as retribution for an earlier one.

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